The following case studies are composite profiles based on experiences working with young Puerto Rican mothers during the past six years. Each reflects the school age mother’s educational, health, and social needs.
Ana is 17 years old, an Educable Mentally Retarded (EMR) junior in high school. She was born in Puerto Rica in April, 1967. Her son was born in June, 1981. She and her son are currently living with her mother, stepfather, and siblings: boys ages 9 and 10, girls ages 7 and 15.
Ana moved to New Haven with her mother and an older sister when she was three. (Her mother, though here now 14 years, speaks no English.) For the next eleven years, Ana lived with her mother, step-father and sisters and brothers; they changed neighborhoods frequently and she attended seven different elementary schools.
When Ana was 14, she ran away from home (end of her 8th grade) and moved to Bridgeport with her “husband”, age 25. She went to the clinic each month for a pregnancy test; she learned that she was pregnant in October. At that time, she and her husband moved back to New Haven; they moved into an apartment above her aunt’s. She heard about the McCabe Center for Young Mothers through another young mother and went to visit the school with her. She was enrolled as a 9th grade EMR student. During the year at McCabe, she was very quiet (though she seemed to understand English, she spoke very little), managed adequately in the small classes, sat with the other Puerto Rican girls with whom she spoke Spanish (if she spoke spontaneously at all). She was always on time and had excellent daily attendance. She rarely spoke voluntarily to the nurse or social worker; if asked how things were going, a simple, “okay, non problems”, was the reply. Her son was born in June, 7 lbs, 4 oz. Her mother had met her at the hospital and Ana had a normal delivery.
In September she returned to Lee High School and was placed in bilingual EMR classes. In November, she moved into the Cross district (Ana, husband, child on one floor, mother and family above). At Cross, she was programmed for regular classes. When her records arrived weeks later, and the counselor realized she was EMR, she was put in all EMR classes and when the counselor realized she was also a mother, she was offered the Parenting class. Throughout the year, she was quiet in class, participated when asked, spoke Spanish informally (and with lively animation at times) with three other Puerto Rican girls in the Parenting class.
During the winter months, a social worker at the hospital noted that Ana was often observed sitting in the Emergency Room waiting area with her son late in the evenings. That spring, her mother moved to another part of town and she, her son and husband moved several blocks away. Her mother continued to baby-sit but Ana had to walk a considerable distance with the baby and then walk to school; she was often tardy and was threatened with suspension for three days if the tardiness continued (11 days is the limit.)
During the summer, Ana had a CETA job working at a playground. In September, she returned to Cross as a junior. During the first days of school, she requested time to see the Parenting teacher/advisor alone. Clearly, during the summer months, she had begun to plan this meeting carefully. “Is it true that a teenage girl who doesn’t like sex is crazy?” Over the next few weeks, Ana attended the Parenting classes and met individually with the Parenting teacher/advisor. Together they agreed on the need to seek counseling on a regular basis and a health care plan for herself through the hospital. Her husband was threatening to keep her from attending school; she was being abused nightly and held in the apartment forcibly at times.
In November, following a severe beating, she fled with her son. Her mother agreed to let her come home; two weeks later, her mother said that Ana had stayed away long enough to teach her husband a lesson and that it was her duty to go back ‘home’ now. Working with the Parenting Teacher/ Advisor, the hospital social worker and through the intergenerational housing project (a special program which seeks to place young mothers and their children in the homes of senior citizens), Ana found a room for herself and her son. She stayed there for two months. Her mother continued to baby-sit but distance and transportation costs were problems. Her mother reminded her daily that she was disgracing the family—it was not proper for a young lady to be living alone. Ana and her son resumed living in her mother’s apartment. On several occasions her step-father has allowed her “ex-husband” entry into the house because he says he has a right to see his son. Ana had continued in the counseling weekly. Her personality at school is quite changed; she appears happy most of the time. It is apparent when she has an occasional night with little sleep—a difficult evening due to her step-father’s drinking, a dispute with mother, a family upset over her younger brothers troublesome behaviors, verbal abuse from step-father; but she seems to be gaining strength daily in her commitment to achieving her educational goals—senior year, a Nurse’s Aid Program, high school graduation.
Moritza is 15, living now in an apartment with her 17 year old husband. Their daughter is one year old. Moritza was a 7th grade student with excellent attendance (despite periodic trips to Puerto Rico); she tested far above grade level in math and reading and maintained straight A’s during most of her elementary and middle school years. She had known her husband Tony for about a year; he would meet her in the afternoon and walk her home from school (usually accompanied by Moritza’s little sister). Moritza and Tony had intercourse once—and she became pregnant.
She and Tony discussed the problem. She wanted to stay in school until the baby was born. He had no money for an apartment and there was not enough room at his house for her and the baby. Moritza attended the McCabe Center during her pregnancy and continued living at home with her mother (age 30, working full time) and her father (age 35, working) and her younger sister. As the pregnancy progressed, she and her mother began to talk more and more and to plan for the baby; her mother’s initial response to the reality of the pregnancy was one of sadness and resignation—she said she knew her daughter was probably pregnant. Moritza’s father refused to talk to Moritza or his wife for several weeks. Moritza’s grandmother agreed to babysit for the infant. Though her baby was born in the late fall, Moritza continued at the McCabe Center for the remainder of her eighth grade year (rather than returning to the middle school). Her attendance was sporadic at times (her grandmother sometimes had ‘things’ to do—redetermination at the Welfare office, hair appointments) in the morning. Some days Moritza said she was just too tired to come but she always made up her work and maintained a good average. In September of the next school year, Moritza entered Lee High School as a freshman. She was frequently tardy—walking ten blocks to her grandmother’s home with the baby, five blocks back to school. Sometimes her grandmother was not home when Moritza arrived in the morning and there was no phone to call ahead and check; on these days she would be absent. At school, she had a full freshmen program: Urban Studies, English, Physical Science, Basic Algebra IA, Parenting and she had requested a sewing class to learn a trade. By the end of the first school quarter, Moritza had 11 tardies and 12 absences (20 allowed for the year). She worked with the Parenting Teacher/Advisor to document with doctor’s notes the absences related to the child’s health and these were excused—but not without a lengthy lecture from her school administrator.
Moritza looked very unhappy at school; she was always alone when I saw her in the halls. One day during class with me she shared that her father was still not talking to her; also he would not let her walk outside with her sister (two years younger)—it was not right because Moritza was no longer a virgin. Another Puerto Rican girl said she had had the same experience, which seemed to make Moritza feel better about her situation.
Meanwhile, her plans to marry her baby’s father continued; his family was helping to prepare an apartment for them in their neighborhood across town. In December, she and the baby and Tony moved into their own apartment. There was a shower for Moritza and she and Tony received everything they needed for their household. Tony work rotating shifts in a factory nearby. He seems to treat Moritza well, his family is affectionate and warm with her. In some ways Moritza is currently better off—removed from the daily stress in her family’s home and accepted by them now as she fulfills their expectations for her as wife, mother and homemaker.
Iris is nineteen, married, has one child (a son, Roberto) and is a high school graduate. She works full time as a dental assistant and her son—age 3—is in a full time day care center.
Iris was 16 when she became pregnant, a junior in high school. She had been going with Angel for 3 years; though he did not graduate from high school, he had a good job as a semi-skilled technician at an aircraft plant. Iris was very upset when she learned that she was pregnant; though she had never met with her guidance counselor or discussed her plans with anyone, she had planned to go on to college, possibly away from home. She considered in her own mind terminating the pregnancy, but knew that her mother and her boyfriend would disapprove; she felt she would not be able to do it without telling them. She told her mother and she discussed the pregnancy with Angel and his family. Iris and Angel were legally married and moved to their own apartment.
From the beginning, Iris’ mother gave a clear message. “I will help you until you finish high school. Then you are on your own.” (Iris’ mother had also almost finished high school but dropped out to have a baby; she had learned English and had worked in a home for the elderly.) Iris had a very healthy pregnancy, attended all pre-natal appointments, and continued her excellent school performance at the alternate school for pregnant girls. She never spoke to anyone at the school about her former career plans; her goal now was high school graduation. Her son was born in June and she returned to her regular high school.
She joined the Parenting classes; she had completed her math and science requirements and chose a business course of study for her senior year. She consistently made a positive contribution to the Parenting class; she was mature and carried with her a quiet, but determined, demeanor. Though conflicted some days due to disagreements with her husband (he might criticize at times—her fault if the baby had a cold, she should stay at home like other wives) and occasionally difficult interactions with her mother, she remained calm but firm, clear and direct in making her educational needs known to both husband and mother. She would not compromise here.
Iris used the opportunity in the Parenting class and in individual counseling time to air her grievances (ie. the difficulties of cooking, cleaning, being in charge of the baby, keeping husband happy) and she maintained a generally positive outlook. She was particularly animated during class discussions about adolescent sexuality and contraceptive planning; she expressed interest in gaining as much knowledge as she could about her own body and was very interested in learning about sex education and children—agreeing with the instructor that it was a good idea to give children the proper names of the parts of the body.
During the winter of her senior year, she took a part time job at a fast food restaurant. Parenting Program staff worried that this would be too much for her to handle. She did not want to put the baby on welfare and yet needed extra money in the winter to pay additional bills (heat, holidays). Up every morning at 6, prepare breakfast for family, dress baby, walk a fair distance to mother’s, walk back to school, school from 8:25 until 1:30, housework, errands, appointments, prepare husband’s dinner, work from 6 p.m. until 11:00. Walk home from work. During the weeks she was working nights, her mother sometimes kept the baby overnight. Her husband disapproved and gradually he agreed to sit alone with the baby while Iris was working.
As graduation approached, Iris indicated that she was feeling let down. All this effort—for what? To graduate and stay home? She was not planning to have another child for awhile. After all, she’d managed school and work and home—now she’d just be home. Earning minimum wage was discouraging—yet what else was she qualified to do?
In May, a speaker came to the Parenting classes to discuss infant and toddler dental care. Iris seemed very interested. She and I discussed the possibility of a training program at the technical college. Within one week, Iris secured the application, completed it, and was scheduled for an interview. June—and she’d been accepted. A one year certificate program. Semester One required classes, 9 to 5; semester two, a placement in a health agency to train as a Dental Assistant. She investigated starting salaries and job benefits and decided to do it. Her mother had a child entering kindergarten; since she would be home another year due to the school hours and transportation, she agreed to care for her grandson for one more year. (She planned to return to work when her child entered first grade.) On the days when she was unable to sit, the paternal grandmother agreed to help.
Iris graduated from the program one year later. When she came to visit me (she’d hardly had a free moment all year to call and say hello), she had three job offers with private dentists and wanted advice deciding which one to accept.
Iris had a strong self-image of herself as a mother—supported by the expectation of her mother and mother-in-law—that she was the mother of her child. Though she had her own ideas about handling the baby’s illnesses and behaviors—she was not threatened by their input and deferred to them while the baby was in their care. She chose a health care facility near her mother’s house to facilitate appointments and emergency needs.
Iris—bright, mature, attractive, independent, and determined. Her mother, the mutual love and respect between mother and daughter, the fact that Iris was a little older than some of her peer young mothers contributed to her current success. Carefully defined goals and consistent, realistic plans to achieve them and the dependability of the family support network (including her husband who at age 23 seemed not too young and not too old to resist learning, growing, and changing)—I sense that their young child will not become a young parent.
Martinez argues that in order to develop programs and policy for Hispanic adolescents, we must have data gathered from Hispanics. We can not rely on data in which Hispanics are grouped with “white.” From the small amount of information gathered about Hispanic young mothers (he refers to samples from interviews conducted in San Francisco with Hispanic women, their parents, siblings and friends), Martinez reflects on the cultural issues to be considered.
For many of the Hispanic girls, the traditional values have not changed. The sense of ‘familia’—encompassing extended family and older members deserving respect and having authority—is still very strong. It is difficult to imagine the enormity of the conflict Ana faced—to obey her mother and stay with an abusive man or to defy tradition and become independent and assertive. We must understand the Hispanic family—the traditional values and sex roles, patterns of dating, courtship, and marriage. The Hispanic woman lives in a context in which the role of mother has an extremely high social value, but Moritza—bright, academically oriented and wanting to continue school—had no sense of clarity of peace in her daily life until she’d met her family’s expectations. We must understand the family’s response to the young Puerto Rican woman’s pregnancy if we are providing health, educational and social services she needs. The majority of young mothers in the United States become drop outs or push outs (Martinez, p.338). I look forward to the possibility of hearing the term, stop out. Like Moritza, the very young mother may be forced by family (or health reasons) to remain at home for a time after the baby is born. She should be permitted to ‘stop out’ and be welcomed back into the high school setting when she is able to resume, a year later, maybe two years later.
The Furstenberg work dispels the stereotype of the adolescent mother as “a social isolate, removed from parental or conjugal support” (Furstenberg, p. 68). The majority of young mothers in the studies conducted did not fit this characterization. Sadly, the stereotype of the social isolate is not a myth for many of the Puerto Rican young mothers I have worked with, but rather a reality. Blanca, Carmen, and Moritza know what it is like to be alone in a tiny apartment all day, afraid to go out alone because their husband will be angry, unable to talk to a friend, a relative or neighbor, or estranged from their own mothers at a very young age. For each of these young women, we can assume there are two more young mothers with whom the school system lost contact before they even became pregnant.
As educators, it is important to recognize the realities which threaten the Hispanic young woman’s success:
She is likely to be behind educationally (age 16 in the 7th grade is not uncommon) due to transitions between Puerto Rico and the mainland, and because education is not esteemed by her culture, especially for women.
She probably has had little or no education about her body, puberty, sexuality, female health care.
The men in her life (father, step-father, absent father, brothers and friends) maintain traditional and rigid views of females: girls will become mothers, homemakers, wives.
She will be encouraged by her mother to marry young to protect her virginity.
She most likely lives in a female headed household supported by AFDC; there are few male or female role models in her urban environment; she is surrounded by unemployed, uneducated men, dependent, passive women.
Her relationship with her mother will begin to shift as puberty approaches; her mother, anxious to protect her daughter’s virginity and fearful that her daughter will repeat her own fate, will be unable to discuss her feelings.
And, if the Puerto Rican young woman becomes pregnant, she will most likely marry, move in with her husband and his family; she will be vulnerable to subsequent pregnancies because the Hispanic man does not favor the use of birth control—fearing that she will not be loyal to him.
I have experienced (and have heard the same from bilingual teachers and counselors in the middle schools) the frustration of working with a bright, motivated, promising student—the student for whom we envision high education, scholarships, college and professional success—only to have her come in one day and invite me to her wedding. Fourteen and married—her life script written. As educators, it is our role to help a student set educational goals, to heighten self-concept, to help a student realize the fullest personal and academic potential. Working with the Hispanic adolescent female, we must keep in mind that she must come to terms with the disparities between traditional Puerto Rican and contemporary American values, and that she risks alienation from her parents and extended family and cultural group. The educational process must provide an opportunity to discuss the emotional conflicts she may be experiencing.